A desperate team on the rebound, UNLV got exactly what it needed from junior big men Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith.
Birch’s putback with 12 seconds to go broke a tie, and his blocked shot with 5.2 seconds left helped the Rebels hold on for a 73-70 victory over Omaha on Friday night at the Thomas & Mack Center.
His heroics came after Smith recorded career highs of 17 points and 22 rebounds to put UNLV in position to bounce back from its most lopsided home loss in 10 years.
“We definitely found a positive out of a negative situation,” Smith said. “We knew coming into the season we weren’t going to go undefeated and the whole season wasn’t going to be sunshine. There were going to be down moments.
“It’s only the third game. We have a talented group.”
Junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones scored 15 of his 19 points in the second half as the Rebels (2-1) fought to overcome the adversity brought on by their 21-point defeat to UC Santa Barbara on Tuesday.
The Mavericks, who never led, tied the game at 68 on Mike Rostampour’s 3-pointer with 1:38 left. Dejean-Jones made two free throws with 1:11 to go, and Devin Patterson tied it again with two free throws with 42 seconds to play.
“Bryce is a go-to guy for us,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “I have a lot of confidence in Bryce, and I wanted to put the ball in our best perimeter player’s hands.”
Rice used a timeout to set a play for Dejean-Jones, who dribbled off a high screen and missed a 15-foot jumper from the right wing. The 6-foot-9-inch Birch rebounded and dropped the ball in, then defended the other rim by blocking 6-1 guard CJ Carter’s layup attempt.
“Thank goodness Khem was back there,” Rice said. “He’s an unbelievable defensive force inside.”
With the Rebels ahead by two, Jelan Kendrick hit the second of two free throws with 4.6 seconds to go, and Carter’s running 3-point try to tie bounced off the front of the rim at the buzzer.
Birch finished with nine points, 10 rebounds and eight blocks in 26 minutes. He picked up his fourth foul with 8:30 left and returned to the floor about four minutes later.
Omaha (2-2) trailed 36-27 at the half, but Alex Phillips hit consecutive 3-pointers from opposite corners to cut its deficit to 44-41 with 15:37 remaining.
UNLV was unable to get any breathing room until Dejean-Jones’ 3-pointer made the score 59-52 with 8:15 to go. Smith’s rebound dunk off Kevin Olekaibe’s 3-point miss put the Rebels ahead 68-63 with 3:36 left. Still, the Mavericks had another rally left in them.
Smith had eight offensive rebounds and three blocks in 38 minutes. His 22 rebounds were the most by a UNLV player since Louis Amundson grabbed the same number in 2004.
“It was hard to take Roscoe out of the game,” Rice said.
Kevin Olekaibe hit 3 of 5 3-pointers and added 11 points for the Rebels, who finished with a 55-43 advantage in rebounds due to the efforts of Smith, Birch and Dejean-Jones, who pulled down eight.
“Roscoe brings tremendous energy to the team on both ends of the court,” Dejean-Jones said. “Every rebound he goes after and gets, and he goes after every loose ball. He brings a lot to the team. He’s a real important part.”
After being embarrassed by UCSB early in the week, Rice was more satisfied with his players’ effort. The Rebels made several defensive mistakes and failed to stop dribble penetration, but they held Omaha to 32.9 percent (24 of 73) shooting.
Patterson finished with 17 points and John Karhoff fouled out with 15 points for the Mavericks. Carter, who was averaging 20.7 points, shot 5-for-16 and added 13.
UNLV continued its careless and unfocused play on the offensive end, committing 21 turnovers, including 15 in the first half, and shooting 11-for-22 on free throws.
“We know that we’re going to have to get a lot better, but it was a much-needed win after Tuesday’s performance,” Rice said. “It’s a huge win for us. But we’ve got a lot of room for improvement.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.